Nuclear costs will come down, executives tell senators

The entrance to the South Texas Project, a two-unit nuclear facility located outside of Bay City, Texas. The plant is located on a 12,200 acre site. Combined the two units produce 2,700 megawatts of electricity, enough to power two million Texas homes. The two-unit nuclear facility, one of the nation's largest, began commercial operation in 1988 and 1989 respectively. (Emily Pickrell/Houston Chronicle)
The South Texas Project, a two-unit nuclear facility located outside of Bay City, Texas. (Emily Pickrell/Houston Chronicle)

Despite its decades-long record of providing carbon-free electricity, nuclear energy’s high costs have cast a pall over recent discussions over its future on the nation’s power grid.

But leading U.S. nuclear executives testified before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources Tuesday that a new breed of smaller reactors could bring down technology costs to the point they could compete with the rush of new natural gas plants and wind turbines being constructed around the United States.

“If you can’t afford it, it’s all theory,” said John Gilleland, chief technical officer at Terra Power, the nuclear startup owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

So-called advanced nuclear technology is not expected to be in commercial operation until almost 2030 at the earliest. But the cost savings are intriguing to members of Congress, who are working to pass a series of bills to try and speed up research and development.

Gilleland testified that, considering the new advanced reactor his firm is developing does not require the costly maintenance of traditional plants and produces a much smaller waste stream, it could deliver electricity at 7.5 cents cents a kilowatt hour.

That’s about double what the cheapest solar farms are selling power contracts for right now. But it’s far from the high costs associated with projects like the $14 billion plan to expand the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia by Southern Co. and other utilities. The Union of Concerned Scientists puts the levelized cost of that project at about 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Steve Kuczynski, CEO of Southern’s nuclear subsidiary, Southern Nuclear Operating Co., took tough questioning from senators on the economics of the project, which he defended as a necessity to diversify the power supply to protect against future commodity price spikes.

“Of course [natural gas] would be less, but you make a big assumption on fuel prices. Nobody will give you a 40-year contract on gas,” Kuczynski said.

The Vogtle project uses a new generation reactor, but at its core it still runs on the same water-cooled reactor technology that has been around for decades. What companies like Terra Power are developing are smaller reactors that could theoretically built at reduced cost, often cooled by substances like sodium and helium they believe will not only make nuclear safer but eventually cheaper.

John Hopkins, CEO of NuScale Power, which is developing modular water-cooled reactors in Oregon, said he believes the day where where advanced nuclear makes economic sense is close.

“We have banks coming to us saying this is how we think we can finance this,” he testified Tuesday.

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